**This review contains some spoilers
"Angel Beats" is a concise exploration of adolescent angst set against a backdrop of near-constant violence, which is hardly unique among anime. What I liked about this one, though, was the pervasive optimism -- this is not a particularly dark or depressing show, although it is emotionally honest, which means that there may well be moments to make you cry (I never did, although I came close in the last few episodes). The violence, though it comes often (and is just as often fairly brutal) has a light edge to it, because, especially in the early going of the series, the characters can't be killed. They are, in fact, already dead, which means that any injuries they sustain, although grievous, can't actually do them in. This conceit leads to one of my favorite episodes, a play on the "And Then There Were None" trope in which the characters advance through a dungeon, "dying" horribly one by one via traps set along the way.
Things get more serious as the plot progresses and the enemies become more vaguely menacing. Still, the series maintains a light tone, and even the worst of fates is ultimately revealed to be reversible. Less than the action elements, the true darkness -- and emotional depth -- of the series comes from the characters themselves, who to a man/woman are possessed of grim backstories that evince a life unfulfilled.
Take the main character, Otonashi, for instance, whose backstory -- which I won't reveal here -- is one of those moments that nearly brought a tear to my eye, though not because it was overwhelmingly depressing; it certainly is sad, but it's a very bittersweet kind of sadness that also shows you something truly remarkable about the character. The whole series is like this -- the backstories help give context for the character, but despite their sadness, do not drag the series down into a mire of inescapable depression.
In fact, this flashback structure is one of the things I love most about the series, because it allows a pretty good number of the characters to be expanded beyond their basic archetype. A few receive almost no development whatsoever -- instead, they are given the anime standard "weird character trait that comes to completely define their every interaction" (for instance, one character is always asking to be called "Christ" for not discernible reason, and if he has a line, you can bet he'll ask this at the end of it). This is fairly understandable given the small number of episodes, but other characters, especially the main six (Otonashi, Yuri, Angel, Hinata, Naoi, and Yui) do get a fair amount of development over the course of the series via the insight we eventually get into their past lives. This has the obvious end result of these characters becoming the ones we care most about, and by the end I certainly did care a great deal about their ultimate fate.
Before I move on, I want to make special mention of the female characters. There is some fanservice in this anime, and while I usually kind of hate fanservice, at least it's balanced out by strong female characters. Yuri and Angel especially are complex women of action -- Yuri on the side of good, Angel much more questionable. Angel devolves a bit as the series goes on, but by the end, when you have a fuller sense of her character, she rebounds back into "strong female lead" territory once again.
Of course none of these characters would be particularly interesting if they weren't in service of a good plot. Again, the plot here is hardly revolutionary, but it's mysterious enough to start out that you're willing to bear with it until the characters win you over. The pacing is quick and there's not too much filler, although the middle of the series does sag a little bit as the actual enemy becomes murkier and you become less sure of exactly who the team is fighting against. This is all rectified with a great climax, and an even more brilliant denouement. And anyway, the larger plot (though still excellent) hardly matters; as with most of my favorite series, the most important thing here is the characters, and I've already discussed, I'm a big fan of the character work in this series.
Beyond plot and tone, I should also make mention of the animation. As with most anime that I watch, the animation is what first drew me to the series, and it does not disappoint. I think it looks gorgeous, and the action scenes are dynamic and well-staged. The character designs are hardly revolutionary and sometimes a bit too busy, but by and large they get the job done so no major complaints from me on that front. The music is generally pretty good, although nothing in particular stands out. I do quite enjoy the opening and ending themes, which do a good job of setting the slightly melancholy but ultimately happy tone that the series strives for.
All in all this is really great anime, one that's pretty short and that you will likely watch in just a few sittings, especially if you enjoy it as much as I did. I laughed (yes, there's a good amount of humor too!), I cried (well, teared up anyway), and I can easily see myself revisiting this one time and again. All that makes for a winner in my book.